It seems like a simple dish. Start with a bit of rice, cover it with broth, throw in some seasonings and vegetables, add a protein or two. But for purists, paella is anything but simple. Instead, everything from the pan used to the socarrat (the crunchy bottom layer of the rice) has to be just right.
So how do San Antonio chefs measure up when it comes to making the national dish of Spain? On March 25, locals will find out as famed chef Johnny Hernandez brings back the Corona Paella Challenge.
The annual event, now in its ninth year, features a who’s-who of chefs from San Antonio, usually drafting a few noted names from across the U.S. and Mexico to fill up the roster. The judges (full disclosure: I will be on the panel) will be scoring the challengers in two categories: contemporary and modern classical.
Modern classical takes traditional Valencian paella (the saffron seasoned form most common in the U.S.) as its starting point, although there can be a lot of variation in that form. Anything goes in the contemporary category, a division that in past years has seen out of the box offerings like rice wrapped in a lotus leaf, rice crackers topped with sausage and shrimp salad, and even dessert paella.
This year, the competitors include several chefs nominated for the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Best Chef, including Brooke Smith (nominated for her work at Esquire Tavern but representing El Mirador at the event) and Pieter Sypesteyn (The Cookhouse) competing in the contemporary category. Fellow nominees Michael Sohocki (Restaurant Gwendolyn) and Jeff Balfour (Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery) will be going head-to-head in the modern classical competition.
Other chef svying for the contemporary win are Amneris Rosa (San Antonio Country Club); James Foote (Cicada Catering); Camron Woods (Las Canarias); Alfredo Contreras (Munchies ... It’s All Good); Martha Solis (San Antonio Food Bank); Susana Trilling (Seasons of My Heart); Edward Garcia III (The Box Street Social); Justin Ward (The Culinary Institute of San Antonio); Amadeus Ornelas (Luna Rosa); Jeff White (Eastside Kitchenette); Iris Ornelas (Luna Rosa); and Craig Mattox (The RK Group).
Battling it out for modern classical glory are Jose Sanchez (Cured); Jason Dady (Jason Dady Restaurants); Ian Lanphear (Kenya’s Naibor); Andrew Ho and Sean Wen (Pinch Boil House); Ben Annotti (Pinch Boil House); Tatu Herrera (the upcoming Folklores); Howie Velie (The Culinary Institute of America); Jhojans Priego (Villa Rica); Jeff Foresman (Zocca Cuisine de Italia); and James Canter (Guerilla Gourmet).
Besides competing for bragging rights, the chefs are also participating to raise scholarship funds to help students afford culinary school. Fittingly, young culinarians have the chance to duke it out too in the seventh annual High School Paella Challenge, the winner of which will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to visit the Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park, New York.
Although early bird tickets sold out quickly, the current price is still a bargain for a more than two dozen paella samples, Spanish wines and sangria, and live entertainment.